The Big Lebowski, a 1998 comedy film written by Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Joel Coen, chronicles a few days in the life of a burned-out, unemployed California slacker after he is mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. While not directly based on Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep, Joel Coen has said that "[we] wanted to do a Chandler kind of story—how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that's ultimately unimportant."
The film, known for its idiosyncratic characters, surreal dream sequences, unconventional dialogue and eclectic soundtrack, has become a cult classic and has been called "the first cult film of the Internet era."
Characters and cast
- Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a single, unemployed slacker living in Venice, California, who enjoys cannabis, White Russians, "the occasional acid flashback" and bowling in a league. The Dude, now in his late forties, has a countercultural past: he claims to be one of the members of the Seattle Seven, and to have worked on the original Port Huron Statement, not the "compromised second draft." He is still a pacifist, though he has become less politically active. When college comes up in the movie, Lebowski claims he spent most of his time in college "occupying various administration buildings, smoking a lot of Thai stick, breaking into the ROTC and bowling." A devoted Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, he actively hates the Eagles and refers to Metallica, for whom he says he was a roadie on their "Speed of Sound" tour, as a "bunch of assholes." He has no job and seems unconcerned with money. Although he is called Lebowski, he is not related to the other Lebowski family, or the "Big" Lebowski. In interviews, the Coen brothers admit this character was based on Jeff Dowd, who was himself a member of the Seattle Seven.
- Walter Sobchak (John Goodman)
- Theodore Donald "Donny" Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) is a member of Walter and The Dude's bowling team. Charmingly naïve, Donny is an avid bowler and was a surfer in his younger days. Donny frequently interrupts Walter's diatribes to inquire about the parts of the story he missed or didn't understand, evoking Walter's abusive and frequently repeated response, "Shut the fuck up, Donny!" This line is a reference to Fargo, the Coen Brothers' previous film, in which Buscemi's character was constantly talking. In the end, Donny becomes the victim of The Dude's journey, even though he is relatively uninvolved and is mostly left out of the loop throughout the film. He dies of a heart attack during the final fight with the Nihilists and, due to an unforeseen error in judgment, his ashes get blown by the wind all over The Dude and Sobchak rather than into the sea. In addition, instead of being able to afford a proper urn, they can only put his ashes in a Folgers can. Moments before his death, Donny, for the first time in the movie, does not roll a strike while bowling.
- Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), the "Big" Lebowski referred to in the movie's title, is a wheelchair-bound multi-millionaire who lost the use of his legs in the Korean War. He is married to Bunny and is Maude's father by his late wife. He is a pompous man who uses his late wife's money to make himself feel powerful and is obsessed with appearing rich and self-made. Both of these characteristics place him in stark contrast to The Dude, whom he views as a deadbeat loser.
- Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) is the Big Lebowski's daughter. She is a feminist and an avant-garde artist whose work "has been commended as being strongly vaginal." She is good friends with video artist Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), and is possibly the person who introduced Bunny to Uli Kunkel, the nihilist, porn star, and would-be kidnapper. Maude strongly disapproves of her father's marriage to Bunny. She also desires a child with a man whom she will never have to see socially. It is implied that she is pregnant with The Dude's child at the end of the movie when the Stranger says that "there's a little Lebowski on the way."
- Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), born Fawn Knutsen, is the Big Lebowski's "trophy wife." She ran away from her family's farm in Moorhead, Minnesota and soon found herself making pornographic videos (such as Logjammin) under the name "Bunny LaJoya." She is careless, irresponsible, and sexually promiscuous (as evidenced by her offer of oral sex for $1,000 to The Dude on their first meeting). She is also an annoyance to her husband, who hopes "she will one day learn to live on her allowance, which is ample." It is believed throughout the film that the kidnappers have chopped off her toe in order to prove the seriousness of the situation. However, near the end we see her unharmed, with Uli Kunkel's ex-girlfriend giving up her toe instead.
- Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a sycophant and loyal assistant to the Big Lebowski, who tries to please everyone. Brandt has a habit of echoing his boss as well as breaking out in nervous laughter during awkward moments.
- The Stranger (Sam Elliott) is the film's narrator, who sees this story unfold from an unbiased perspective. His narration is marked by a thick, laid-back Western accent. He appears on camera in only two scenes but nevertheless establishes a rapport with The Dude, whom he sees not as a low-life but as an ironic and tragic figure, maybe even a kindred spirit. The Stranger enjoys a good Sioux City sarsaparilla and is twice accompanied by the song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."
- Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) is a pornographic film producer and loan shark who lives in Malibu, where he commands respect because of his wealth. He employs the two thugs who assault The Dude in his home at the beginning of the movie. He also seems to carry considerable weight with the local sheriff.
- The Nihilists are three Germans who claim to be nihilists, composed of leader Uli Kunkel, aka porn star Karl Hungus (Peter Stormare), Franz (Torsten Voges), and Dieter (Flea). They briefly constituted a Kraftwerkian techno-pop band called "Autobahn" during the late '70s. Maude Lebowski has an LP album of this band called Nagelbett. The title is German for "nail bed." Translated from Swedish, Peter Stormare's native tongue, it means "nail bite." The record sleeve shows the three Germans dressed up exactly like the cover of Kraftwerk's album The Man-Machine. The group, along with Kunkel's ex-girlfriend (played by musician Aimee Mann), pretend to be the ones who kidnapped Bunny.
- Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) an opponent of The Dude's and Walter's team in the bowling league semifinals match. This eccentric, trash-talking Latino resident of North Hollywood served "six months in Chino for exposing himself to an 8-year-old." Walter Sobchak mentions in the film that when Jesus "moved to Hollywood, he had to go door to door to tell everyone that he was a pederast." He speaks with a thick Hispanic accent, and often refers to himself in the third person, insisting on the English pronunciation of his name (GEE-zus) rather than the Spanish (hay-ZOOS). Although he appears in only two scenes, he is a very memorable character in the film, and he also utters the quote: "Nobody fucks with the Jesus!" Jeff Bridges has stated that he doesn't usually watch his own movies, but that he is "hooked" on watching The Big Lebowski because he has "got to see Turturro lick the bowling ball".
- Da Fino (Jon Polito) is a private investigator hired by Bunny Lebowski's parents, the Knutsens, to entice their daughter back to their farm in Moorhead, Minnesota. Da Fino, who drives a battered blue Volkswagen Beetle (in reference to the Coen Brothers' first film, Blood Simple), mistakes The Dude for a "brother shamus" (a fellow P.I.), and offends The Dude by referring to Maude as his "special lady" and not The Dude's preferred term, "lady friend."
Two thugs surprise Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) in his home in Venice, California, attempting to collect a debt Lebowski's supposed wife owes to Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). After the thugs rough up the Dude and urinate on his rug, the Dude points out that they're looking for a different person of the same name. The next day, the Dude seeks compensation for his rug from the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the titular "Big" Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound millionaire, who gruffly refuses. After craftily stealing one of the Big Lebowski's rugs, the Dude meets Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the Big Lebowski's nymphomaniacal trophy wife on his way off the property.
Days later, the Big Lebowski contacts the Dude, revealing that Bunny has been kidnapped and asks him to act as a courier for the million-dollar ransom, the Dude being in the unique position of being able to identify the rug-soiling thugs, the suspected kidnappers. Back at his apartment, the Dude naps on his new, stolen rug, only to have his apartment burgled again, the criminals knocking him unconscious. Following a musical dream sequence, the Dude wakes up on his bare wooden floor, his new rug missing. Soon after, when Bunny's kidnappers call to arrange the ransom exchange, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the Dude's unstable bowling teammate, convinces the Dude to keep the money and gives the kidnappers a "ringer" suitcase filled with dirty underwear. The exchange is bungled however and the kidnappers escape. Later that night, the Dude's car is stolen, along with the briefcase filled with money. The Dude receives a message from the Big Lebowski's daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), who admits to stealing the Dude's rug, which he stole from the "Big" Lebowski's home. At her art studio, she explains that Bunny is a pornographic actress working under producer Jackie Treehorn and confirms the Dude's suspicion that Bunny probably kidnapped herself, identifying her likely accomplices as a trio of German nihilists led by Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare), a pornographic actor who has worked with Bunny. She asks the Dude to recover the ransom, as it was illegally withdrawn by her father from a family-run charitable foundation for orphans, offering him a finder's fee in exchange for his services.
The Dude is enjoying a relaxing bath when he receives a message that his car has been found. Mid-message, the three German nihilists invade The Dude's apartment, interrogating him for the ransom money. After they leave, amidst ominous warnings, the Dude retrieves his car but finds the briefcase missing. Based on evidence in the back seat of his car, the Dude and Walter track down the likely thief, a teenager living at home, but fail to find the briefcase of money during his interrogation. Upon returning home, Jackie Treehorn's thugs return to bring The Dude to Treehorn's beach house, where Treehorn inquires about the whereabouts of Bunny. When the Dude confesses he has no such information, Treehorn drugs The Dude's drink and he passes out, leading to a second, more elaborate dream sequence, "Gutterballs." Upon awakening once again, the Dude arrives home and is greeted by Maude Lebowski, who hopes to conceive a child with him. During post-coital conversation with Maude, The Dude finds out that, despite appearances, her father has no money of his own, as Maude's late mother was the rich one, and she left her money exclusively to the family charity. In a flash, The Dude unravels the whole scheme: When the Big Lebowski heard that Bunny was kidnapped, he used it as a pretense for an embezzlement scheme, in which he withdrew the ransom money from the family charity, kept it for himself, gave an empty briefcase to The Dude (who would be the fall guy on whom he pinned the theft), and was content to let the kidnappers kill Bunny.
Meanwhile, it has by now become clear that the kidnapping was itself a ruse. While Bunny took an unannounced trip, the nihilists (her friends), alleged a kidnapping in order to get money from her husband. (It is left unclear whether and to what extent Bunny was an active collaborator in this scheme). The Dude and Walter arrive at the Big Lebowski residence, finding Bunny back at home, having returned from her trip. They confront the Big Lebowski with their version of the events, which he counters but does not deny. The affair apparently over, the Dude and his bowling teammates are once again confronted by the nihilists, who have set The Dude's car on fire. They are still demanding the million dollars, despite the fact that The Dude does not have the money and Bunny has not even been kidnapped. Walter fights them off, but their third teammate, Donny (Steve Buscemi), suffers a fatal heart attack.
They take his ashes to a beach, where Walter offers a eulogy interspersed with irrelevant Vietnam War references. He scatters Donny's ashes, but a gust of wind blows much of the ashes onto The Dude's face. Upset, The Dude lashes out at Walter. Walter apologizes and hugs The Dude, before suggesting "Fuck it, man. Let's go bowling." As the movie nears its end, The Dude sums up his situation and philosophy with the phrase, "The Dude abides."
The Dude is mostly inspired by Jeff Dowd, a man the Coen brothers met on one of their first trips to Los Angeles in the 1970s. Dowd had been a member of the Seattle Seven and also used to program the Seattle Film Festival. The Dude was also partly based on a friend of the Coen brothers, Pete Exline, a Vietnam War veteran who reportedly lived in a dump of an apartment and was proud of a little rug that "tied the room together." He belonged to an amateur softball league but the Coens changed it to bowling in the movie because "it's a very social sport where you can sit around and drink and smoke while engaging in inane conversation," Ethan said in an interview. Exline told the Coens of his friend Walter, a fellow Vietnam vet who had had his car stolen by teenagers, tracked down one of them from his school homework that had been left in the car, and confronted the boy. The Coens met filmmaker John Milius when they were in Los Angeles making Barton Fink and incorporated his love of guns and the military into the character of Walter.
According to Julianne Moore, the character of Maude was based on artist Carolee Schneemann "who worked naked from a swing" and Yoko Ono. The character of Jesus Quintana was inspired, in part, by a performance the Coens had seen John Turturro give in 1988 at the Public Theater in a play called Ma Puta Vita in which he played a pederast-type character, "so we thought, let's make Turturro a pederast. It'll be something he can really run with," Joel said in an interview.
The film's overall structure was influenced by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Ethan said, "We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling—like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that's why it had to be set in Los Angeles.... We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes." The use of The Stranger's voiceover also came from Chandler as Joel remarked, "He is a little bit of an audience substitute. In the movie adaptation of Chandler it's the main character that speaks offscreen, but we didn't want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It's as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain."
The significance of the bowling culture was, according to Joel, "important in reflecting that period at the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the Sixties. That suited the retro side of the movie, slightly anachronistic, which sent us back to a not-so-far-away era, but one that was well and truly gone nevertheless."
The Big Lebowski was written around the same time as Barton Fink but when the Coens wanted to make it, John Goodman was taping episodes for the Roseanne television program and Jeff Bridges was making the Walter Hill film, Wild Bill and they decided to make Fargo in the meantime. According to Ethan, "the movie was conceived as pivoting around that relationship between the Dude and Walter" which sprang from the scenes between Barton Fink and Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink. When they started writing the script, the Coens only wrote 40 pages and then let it sit for a while before finishing it. This is the normal writing process for the Coens because they often "encounter a problem at a certain stage, we pass to another project, then we come back to the first script. That way we've already accumulated pieces for several future movies."
Polygram and Working Title Films, who had funded Fargo, backed The Big Lebowski with a budget of $15 million. In casting the film, Joel remarked, "we tend to write both for people we know and have worked with, and some parts without knowing who's going to play the role. In The Big Lebowski we did write for John [Goodman] and Steve [Buscemi], but we didn't know who was getting the Jeff Bridges role."
In preparation for his role, Bridges met Dowd but actually "drew on myself a lot from back in the Sixties and Seventies. I lived in a little place like that and did drugs, although I think I was a little more creative than The Dude."
For the look of the film, the Coens wanted it to be "consistent with the whole bowling thing, we wanted to keep the movie pretty bright and poppy," Joel said in an interview. For example, the star motif featured predominantly throughout the movie started with the film's production designer Richard Heinrichs' design for the bowling alley. According to Joel, he "came up with the idea of just laying free-form neon stars on top of it and doing a similar free-form star thing on the interior." This carried over to the film's dream sequences. "Both dream sequences involve star patterns and are about lines radiating to a point. In the first dream sequence, the Dude gets knocked out and you see stars and they all coalesce into the overhead nightscape of L.A. The second dream sequence is an astral environment with a backdrop of stars," recalls Heinrichs.
Actual filming took place over an eleven-week period with location shooting in and around L.A., including all of the bowling sequences at the Hollywood Star Lanes and the Dude's Busby Berkeley-esque dream sequences in a converted airplane hanger.
According to Joel, the only time they ever directed Bridges "was when he would come over at the beginning of each scene and ask, 'Do you think the Dude burned one on the way over?' I'd reply 'Yes' usually, so Jeff would go over in the corner and start rubbing his eyes to get them bloodshot."
The original score was composed by Carter Burwell, a veteran of all the Coen brothers' films. T-Bone Burnett, who also worked with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou? (and later The Ladykillers), is credited as music bibliographer. For Joel, "the original music, as with other elements of the movie, had to echo the retro sounds of the Sixties and early Seventies." Music defines each character. For example, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by Bob Nolan was chosen for The Stranger at the time the Coens wrote the screenplay, as was "Lujon" by Henri Mancini for Jackie Treehorn. "The German nihilists are accompanied by techno-pop and Jeff Bridges by Creedence. So there's a musical signature for each of them," remarked Ethan in an interview.
Soundtrack album track listing
- "The Man in Me" — written and performed by Bob Dylan
- "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" — written and performed by Captain Beefheart
- "My Mood Swings" — written by Elvis Costello and Cait O'Riordan; performed by Costello
- "Ataypura" — written by Moises Vivanco; performed by Yma Sumac
- "Traffic Boom" — written and performed by Piero Piccioni
- "I Got It Bad & That Ain't Good" — written by Duke Ellington and Paul Francis Webster; performed by Nina Simone
- "Stamping Ground" — written by Louis T. Hardin; performed by Moondog with orchestra
- "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" — written by Mickey Newbury; performed by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition
- "Walking Song" — written and performed by Meredith Monk
- "Glück das mir verblieb" from Die tote Stadt — written and conducted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; performed by Ilona Steingruber, Anton Dermota and the Austrian State Radio Orchestra
- "Lujon" — written and performed by Henry Mancini.
- "Hotel California" — written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Don Felder; performed by The Gipsy Kings
- "Technopop" — written and performed by Carter Burwell
- "Dead Flowers" — written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; performed by Townes van Zandt
Other music in the film
- "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" — written by Bob Nolan; performed by Sons of the Pioneers
- "Requiem in D Minor: Lacrimosa" — written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; performed by The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir
- "Run Through the Jungle" — written by John Fogerty; performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- "Lookin' Out My Back Door" — written by John Fogerty; performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- "Behave Yourself" — written by Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr. and Lewie Steinberg; performed by Booker T. & the MG's
- "I Hate You" — written by Gary Burger, David Havlicek, Roger Johnston, Thomas E. Shaw and Larry Spangler; performed by The Monks
- "Gnomus (The Gnome)" — composed by Modest Mussorgsky; from Pictures at an Exhibition. Arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
- "Mucha Muchacha" — written and performed by Juan García Esquivel
- "Piacere Sequence" — written and performed by Teo Usuelli
- "Standing on the Corner" — written by Frank Loesser; performed by Dean Martin
- "Tammy" — written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans; performed by Debbie Reynolds
- "Sounds of the Whale"
- "Oye Como Va" — written by Tito Puente; performed by Santana
- "Peaceful Easy Feeling" — written by Jack Tempchin; performed by The Eagles
- "Branded Theme Song" — written by Alan Alch and Dominic Frontiere
- "Viva Las Vegas" — written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; performed by Big Johnson (with Bunny Lebowski) and by Shawn Colvin (closing credits).
- "This is My Spot" — written and performed by Adam Knowles
- "Dick on a Case" — written and performed by Carter Burwell
- "Wie Glauben" — written and performed by Carter Burwell
The Big Lebowski in popular culture
- An annual festival, Lebowski Fest, began in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002, and has since expanded to several other cities.
- In the December 2006 issue of Alternative Press, Motion City Soundtrack recreated a scene from the movie (along with Back to the Future and Garden State) during a photo shoot.
References and footnotes
- "An Interview with The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan about The Big Lebowski." IndieWire. 1998. http://www.coenbrothers.net/interviewlebow.html
- Russell, Will. "Hey Dude: The Lebowski Festival." The Independent, August 15, 2007. http://arts.independent.co.uk/film/features/article2864617.ece
- Interview Special Feature, The Big Lebowski (Collector's Edition DVD).
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 2003. http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=156641
- Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000.
- Ciment, Michel and Hubert Niogret. The Logic of Soft Drugs. Postif, May 1998.
- Woods, Paul A. Joel & Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings. Plexus, 2000.
- Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. ECW Press, 2000.
- The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film, by William Preston Robertson, Tricia Cooke, John Todd Anderson and Rafael Sanudo (1998, W.W. Norton & Company), ISBN 0-393-31750-1.
- The Big Lebowski, by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen ;(May 1998, Faber and Faber Ltd.), ISBN 0-571-19335-8.
- I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You, by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Scott Shuffitt, Will Russell ;(Bloomsbury USA - August 21, 2007), ISBN 978-1596912465
- The Big Lebowski (BFI Film Classics) by J.M. Tyree, Ben Walters (2007, British Film Institute), ISBN 978-1844571734.
- The Big Lebowski at the Internet Movie Database
- The Big Lebowski DVD Official Universal Studios Site
- The Big Lebowski Screenplay - hosted by Drew's Script-o-Rama.
- Lebowski Fest A traveling festival celebrating all things Lebowski.
- Dudeism - a religion based on The Big Lebowski
- The Big Lebowski in Feminist Film Theory
- Movie Locations Guide.com - Maps and directions to The Big Lebowski Filming Locations
- An Interview with The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan about The Big Lebowski